Today is the feast of Christ the King. As the title of the Kanye West album says, Jesus is King. Today, the final Sunday of the church year, we celebrate the reign of Christ in a feast instituted only in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. To celebrate this feast, I thought I’d share some snapshots of mine from Rome! 😉
Each of these images has important theological significance, and each of them is important for us thinking of Jesus as King. If Jesus is King, most of us imagine him enthroned as in my first image, a mediaeval mosaic from the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. As they would have sung at Santa Maria Maggiore in Lent in the era of that mosaic, Praise to you O Christ, King of Eternal Glory!
But before he was enthroned in glory, Our King was enthroned in death. The ruler of the upside down kingdom slain by the principalities and powers of this present age — thus my second image, an eighth-century (I think) fresco from Santa Maria Antiqua. As a note to art history, pre-Gothic — so, before 1100ish — crucifixion images have Jesus standing in triumph, not hanging in death. For this was our King’s greatest triumph.
But the Orthodox would also call us to remember Our King’s first throne, in this 12th-c image from the church of Santa Pudenziana. Jesus is King, enthroned on His Mother’s lap, a reminder of the theological reality that He was and is fully human with a human mother, just as we have.
This brings me to our final image, of Christ in his mother’s lap one last time. Michelangelo’s Pieta from St Peter’s Basilica. Behold your king.
My own prayer for Christ the King Sunday:
Lord Jesus Christ, you are the King of Eternal Glory. We thank you that we have come through another year as your church. We come to you today at the close of the church year, celebrating your kingship. Help us to remember that at all points in the church calendar — as we recall your birth as a helpless infant, your glory on the mount of Transfiguration, your saving death and resurrection, your glorious ascension, the sending of your Spirit, and your ongoing life in the lives of your saints — help us to remember that at all times you are King. May you come and be King in our hearts, in our families, in our city, in our province, in our nation. You are the one, true King, and citizenship in Heaven is worth more than any earthly citizenship. Rule in our hearts here and now that we may be attentive and worship you, our King and God, in Spirit and in Truth. In your mighty name, we pray, Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I had the wonderful opportunity of seeing my wife’s favourite piece of art on Friday. After I was done work at the Vatican Library, we popped over to St Peter’s, and I beheld Michelangelo’s Pietà. This is one of the Florentine sculptor’s greatest masterpieces, alongside big, naked David, horny Moses, and the Sistine Chapel. I present it to you (in my wife’s own photo!) as large as this WordPress theme will allow:
When I beheld this milky, silky, polished chef-d’oeuvre, I could not help but be overcome by emotion. It is a striking, powerful image. Mary is cradling her Son in her arms.
Yet he droops lifelessly.
Mary gestures to the viewer in her grief, her eyes cast down towards her lifeless, spent Son.
Here, at the Pietà all the sorrows of the world meet.
This is the depth of the reality of all human sorrow, compounded because this Son of hers was the Son of promise.
And what does that promise contain?
Because of its inclusion in Roman Rite Compline and Cranmer’s Evensong, the Song of Simeon, or Nunc Dimittis, is the most famous part of the old Israelite’s encounter with Christ in the Presentation in the Temple (Lk 2:29-32). However, Simeon also speaks a prophecy:
Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Lk 2:34-35, NKJV)
When I looked upon the Pietà, upon the grief of the Mother of Our Lord, upon the immediate, earthly aftermath of the terrible necessity that was wrought for our salvation, that verse struck me with force and vigour.
a sword will pierce through your own soul also
Here sits Mary, full of grace. Full of sorrow. For her Son is dead.
Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) is one of the many colourful characters of Florentine history. My favourite Florentine will always, of course, be Dante Alighieri (saint of the week here), but Savonarola and his younger contemporary Michelangelo Buonarotti are also well worth knowing.
Savonarola was born in Ferrara and educated in ‘Renaissance’ ‘humanism’, headed originally towards a career in medicine. Yet, inspired by a sermon, he decided to leave the world and become a knight for Christ, joining the Order of Preachers, or Dominicans (whose founder was saint of the week here), at Bologna in 1475. After a few years of study, Savonarola became an itinerant preacher, one of the original roles of the Dominicans (hence the official name ‘Order of Preachers’).
In 1490, under the influence of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Lorenzo de Medici ‘il Magnifico’, Savonarola was reassigned to the friary of San Marco in Florence. This friary still stands, although it is one of the conventi soppressi closed by Napoleon in 1808, and I shall visit it tomorrow morning. San Marco was the monastic house of Fra Angelico (d. 1455) and still contains many of his original paintings in situ in the friars’ chambers as well as hosting a museum today.
The last eight years are when it gets exciting.
In Florence, Savonarola proved not only to be a man of keen mind, but also a prophetic, apocalyptic preacher. He drew crowds upon crowds to hear him preach. Indeed, so many people came to hear him preach that the only pulpit large enough was the Duomo (already equipped with Brunelleschi’s [d. 1446] dome).
People liked Savonarola’s very medieval style of apocalyptic. He preached the gospel of repentance to a decadent city in a wealthy peninsula. He preached against tyrants who suppressed the people entrusted to their care. He preached against wealthy clergy who abused their spiritual power for worldly gain. A cult following formed around Savonarola, called the Piagnoni, the weepers/wailers.
I have seen in the Galleria dell’Accademia the two side panels of a triptych painted by one of Savonarola’s disciples (whether a Dominican or a lay artist, the museum label did not tell). They are of John the Baptist on the left and Mary Magdalene on the right. The figures are grey-skinned and ragged, their flesh hanging off their bones. This is the late-medieval spirituality of Savonarola, in stark contrast of the well-fed and well-dressed saints of the contemporary Renaissance. This is the spirituality of poverty — worldly and spiritual, the intersection of the two.
And it was the lack thereof that Savonarola so railed against in Florence.
Not that he was apolitical, mind you.
In 1493, Savonarola preached a series of sermons proclaiming that a new Cyrus was to cross the Alps and invade Italy, then set the Babylonian captives free by reforming the Church. To prove that Savonarola had the gift of prophecy, Charles VIII of France invaded Italy the next year.
Charles VIII marched South and invaded Tuscany, taking the towns along the way. Piero de Medici fled, and soon Charles’ army was encamped outside Florence asking why the Florentines hadn’t supported him. Savonarola went forth and interceded for the Florentines, encouraging Charles to take up his mantle as reformer of the church.
And so Florence was a republic again. And Savonarola was in the thick of it all. 10 December, 1494, he declared:
I announce this good news to the city, that Florence will be more glorious, richer, more powerful than she has ever been; First, glorious in the sight of God as well as of men: and you, O Florence will be the reformation of all Italy, and from here the renewal will begin and spread everywhere, because this is the navel of Italy. Your counsels will reform all by the light and grace that God will give you. Second, O Florence, you will have innumerable riches, and God will multiply all things for you. Third, you will spread your empire, and thus you will have power temporal and spiritual.
This was not to be the case.
Things looked to be looking up. In 1497, Savonarola held the most famous Bonfire of the Vanities in history. The transitory things of this world — art, money, books of astrology, make up and so forth — were burned in a huge bonfire in front of Piazza della Signoria. My Time Out guide to Florence greatly laments this bonfire, wondering what wonders were lost; however, it also fallaciously claims Michelangelo was there, fallen under Savonarola’s spell, and threw some of his own artworks in. Given that Michelangelo was in Rome at the time, I don’t think so.
No doubt, however, some beautiful objects were lost alongside the make up and money and astrology books. And this is too bad. The world is full of too much ugliness to lose the beauty. But for a Renaissance Florentine banker, is this art he has burned? Or is it another attachment to a world of vanities, to a world where the rich oppress the poor, to a world more concerned with gilt haloes around the saints than with emulating the virtues of the saints?
I don’t recommend having a Bonfire of the Vanities yourself, but note that Savonarola was not the only one. Note also that, despite his best efforts, Florence still has the highest concentration of art anywhere in the world. There are masterpieces everywhere here, from the famous (like Michelangelo’s David) to the not-so-famous (like the aforementioned Savonarolan triptych).
In 1498, the pope was finally fed up with Savonarola. And so were the people of Florence. The new golden age hadn’t really come for them, and Charles VIII was threatening papal lands. And so Savonarola was tried for heresy and burned in the selfsame spot as the Bonfire of the Vanities.
I first heard of Savonarola in connection with this quote:
Read this book. It contains everything. You ask for love? Read this book of the Crucified. You wish to be good? Read the book of the Crucified, which contains everything good.
I don’t recall where I found it, sorry. I next heard of Savonarola in connection with the Bonfire of the Vanities (little knowing that there were many) and then as yet another voice calling for reform in the wilderness who was silenced by a tyrannical church hierarchy out to preserve its own wealth and decadence.
The real Savonarola is both more colourful and less heroic. At least, he is less heroic for the Protestants who hold him up as yet another Dominican proto-Reformer/martyr. He helped establish political reform in Florence and believed the King of France to be God’s agent for church reform everywhere. This is not quite the same as Jan Hus (d. 1415), is it?
I look forward to visitng Fra Girolamo’s monastery tomorrow and seeing what trace he has left on Florence as I now enter tourist mode.
In an age where Westboro Baptist stages its “God Hates the World” and “God Hates Fags” demonstrations, where terrorists crash airplanes into buildings (or blow them up), where Pastor Terry Jones threatens to burn the Qu’ran, where people sometimes destroy property and human life in their anti-abortion stance, where Christians who have converted from Islam are systematically tortured or executed in some countries, where former President G W Bush used biblical rhetoric to underlie engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Hindus in India attack Christian minority groups, where Christians and Muslims in Nigeria often turn to violence against one another — in such a world, many people have a hard time seeing what good “religion” and, frequently, Christianity in particular, has to offer.
Historically, it is easy to see the good that religion has done (thus giving the lie to Hitchens’ subtitle, “How Religion Poisons Everything”). We need look no further than the hospitals of the city of Toronto, one, St. Michael’s, founded by Roman Catholics and another, Mount Sinai, by Jews. Historically, religious people have been on the front lines of providing healthcare. Livingstone brought both the Bible and medicine to Africa. The first hospitals of the Byzantine and mediaeval worlds were church organisations.
I have posted previously about Christian fiction — there is great narrative art from the pens of Christians, from the Anglo-Saxons to Dante to Spenser, Milton, and Bunyan to Chesterton, Waugh, Lewis, Tolkien, Buechner. The Christian faith has produced some consummate storytellers.
Any cathedral with its stained glass intact can tell you that in no way is religion an entirely bad force. Behold the Sistine Chapel! Gape at the illuminated Winchester Bible! Stand in awe before Michelangelo’s Pieta! (Sorry I used Buonarroti twice.) Any history of art that covers the Middle Ages and Renaissance will give a good hearty drink of what good religion can produce.
If you watch the video Palestrina’s link takes you to, you will see some of the architecture of the Church. Christianity has produced some amazing architecture over the centuries. So have Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. When a person is striving for the highest good, when striving for something greater than one’s own petty self, beauty can be achieved.
But what good does religion do today? A lot of people think that it has outlived its usefulness, that it has become nothing more than a source of strife and division, that our society has evolved beyond needing religion.
Well, in purely “practical” terms (ie. beyond what I see as the spiritual benefits), religion has built at least one hospital in Angola and a nursing school with it and another nursing school in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These are recent foundations. Religion has brought many a person off the street, out of addiction, and into the workforce through organisations like the Salvation Army, Shelter House, Bethany Christian Trust.
In Toronto, I spent a good number of Saturdays at Toronto Alliance Church, the “Upper Room”. This church is in the upper level of a storefront on Queen St. near Bathurst. If you know Toronto, you have visions of that area with the intersecting streetcar lines, the street-health clinic, the street people, the community housing, the nifty shops, the closed down shops, the Starbucks on one corner, a mission to street people on another, Pizza Pizza the third, and a bar (now closed) on the fourth.
Every Saturday night at Toronto Alliance is “Community Night.” There is a meal — soup & sandwich or something more filling, always warm — a clothing room full of donations people have brought, a nurse who can look after people’s feet (this is a real problem for a lot of people who live on the street), and a food bank.
Part-way through the night, the eclectic group of people who has gathered for food and friendship has a church service gathered around the tables. There are always some of those old “revival” hymns, like “Just As I Am,” and frequently a lot of the people present know and love these hymns. Then there is a message from someone on the church’s ministry staff; when I went, usually Bill or Doug. The message was simple and always focussed on Jesus and the hope he brings and the change he can make.
These church services are sometimes raucous affairs. I’ve never seen banter during an Anglican sermon, but there would be banter here. People would often still mill about, but not many. Some people looked uninterested, but others took a keen interest in the hymns, prayers, and sermon.
Bill, the pastor of Toronto Alliance, knows a lot of the people who come out to Community Night. He’ll chat with them, see how they’re doing, show real concern for them and their welfare. We often think that helping out that vague, amorphous group “the unfortunate” is a matter simply of food, shelter, clothing. It is also very much a matter of love, as I witnessed in Cyprus, of love for the lonely, friendship for the friendless, and light for the lost.
Saturday nights at Toronto Alliance Church provide for the whole person. That alone tells me that religion is of much good in this world, in spite of Westboro Baptist and Islamist terrorism.